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High-Tech Mogul Campaigns on Web

Times Staff Writer

In a field choked with candidates known only to their own friends and relatives, Garrett Gruener has an edge. The high-tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist has millions of dollars to spend, and a Web-based strategy he’s convinced could propel his earnest slate of ideas into the recall election’s mad mix.

In any other race, analysts and even Gruener concede, the wealthy Democratic Party donor wouldn’t have a prayer. But in this anything-goes contest, the co-founder of the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves and the San Francisco venture capital firm Alta Partners has the financial muscle to draw at least some attention to himself. What happens then is anybody’s guess.

The methodical Gruener’s mad dash to be taken seriously in a face-off with celebrities, strippers and dozens of sincere but undercapitalized wannabes offers a glimpse at just how different this race is from any other in the state’s history. For a man who flew his family around the world in a single-engine plane, the challenge was appealing.

“Entrepreneurs are hopeless romantics about their own capabilities, and even if they fail, they hardly notice,” said friend and fellow innovator Nat Goldhaber, who ran for vice president in 2000 despite losing a knockdown, drag-out fight to Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party nomination. “That’s the sign of a real entrepreneur. Garrett certainly falls within that category.”

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Gruener faces steep hurdles. Not only is he unknown to most Californians outside the high-tech world, even some movers and shakers in his own field who are active in Democratic Party politics were unaware of his campaign. “There’s no buzz about it at all,” said Steve Kirsch, chief of Propel Software Corp., who knows Gruener and is among the Silicon Valley tech leaders who have offered Davis advice on the recall campaign. “I didn’t even know he was on the ballot.”

But Gruener’s team says it is just getting started -- and its plans are big. Last week, the 49-year-old Gruener pumped $250,000 of his own money into his campaign, an amount described by his political advisor -- Wade Randlett -- as “a minor down payment of what’s to come.” That places Gruener neck and neck with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the most prominent Democrat on the ballot, who as of Friday had put $264,100 into his campaign.

On Wednesday, Gruener’s team bought 5 million Internet ads to begin what they say will be a relentless campaign to drive people to his Web site -- www.gg4g.com or www.gruenerforgovernor.com. There, potential voters can read Gruener’s daily “blog” and peruse his ideas on education, the need for an entrepreneurial economy and the importance of Green technologies and renewable energy.

The tall, bearded Gruener is a successful entrepreneur with two political science degrees and a longtime involvement in Democratic Party politics. “In this race, there are two Democrats with significant resources -- Bustamante and me,” he said.

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Within a week, Gruener said, his Web site will include a series of white papers on his campaign’s central issues. And any Internet search that mentions the California recall effort should land surfers in Gruener’s universe. True, only a certain demographic group is likely to be poring over position papers on the Web, but in this contest that might prove significant. “Garrett is aiming for a niche,” said Peter Schwartz, the prominent futurist and chairman of Bay Area-based consultancy Global Business Network who has been a longtime friend and business partner of Gruener. “This is an election where that could work.”

Gruener said he would abide by the state’s voluntary $10.6-million spending cap -- and although he has so far spent only his own money, he said he would seek contributions. He agrees with billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett, an advisor to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, that the state’s financial problems are partly the result of Proposition 13. And, he believes in a split tax roll that would subject commercial property to periodic reassessment so older businesses would shoulder a larger share of total taxes.

Gruener is a proponent of gun control and thinks technologies developed around renewable resources could stimulate the economy while protecting the environment. Mostly, he is convinced that the same entrepreneurial spirit that made California the cradle of venture capital could and should be applied to state government.

As reasonable and well-studied as his ideas may seem to many voters, does he have a chance? “If there’s any time for someone to break through, any time for a wild card to be played, it’s no doubt right now,” said San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston, who had not heard of him until last week.

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Still, the odds are huge. Web-based political campaigns have posted recent success in raising money, but whether such campaigns can propel voters to the polls remains an open question, Gerston said. And while Gruener has shunned television ads for now, candidates like Schwarzenegger -- who already has plenty of name recognition -- are expected to fork out as much as $2 million a week on commercials.

Gruener earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at UC San Diego and a master’s at UC Berkeley. Then he set about making a fortune, first with engineering ventures, then as a venture capitalist.

While Alta Partners -- which has backed 120 companies -- took fliers on plenty of businesses that crashed and burned in the dot-com bust, Gruener said he had the foresight in 1999 to shift much of the focus toward life sciences. “It was clear to me we were in a period of excess ... and I think it should have been clear to the state as well,” he said

Emeryville-based Ask Jeeves came uncomfortably close to the graveyard that claimed other dot-com ventures, but the Web’s second-largest independent search engine survived and has seen its stock rise recently.

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Gruener’s leap into politics also was studied. After the 1991 Oakland Hills fire burned thousands of homes -- including his -- Gruener helped advocate for underground power lines. But he was more inspired by state and national politics than local activism. Over the years, he opened his wallet to the Democratic National Committee and a host of Democratic candidates.

Gruener is active with Bay Area Dems, founded last year by Randlett to channel contributions to Democratic candidates across the country.

Over the last year, Schwartz said, Gruener began hunting for a political opportunity. On the day of the filing deadline, he got the final go-ahead from his wife -- a corporate attorney -- and his daughter, Dakota, 13.

Skeptics abound. “He’s not a household name in California, clearly, and he’s got less than 60 days to get well known,” said Jude Barry, a San Jose political consultant and senior advisor to the Howard Dean presidential campaign in California. “It’s going to be very tough for him.”

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